Thursday, March 03, 2011

Adventures in Participatory Audience Engagement at the Henry Art Gallery

This winter, I once again taught a graduate class in the University of Washington's Museology program. In 2009, students built a participatory exhibit from scratch. This year, we took a different approach. Thirteen students produced three projects that layered participatory activities onto an exhibition of artwork from the permanent collection of the Henry Art Gallery. You can explore the projects in full on the class wiki. This post shares my reflections on the projects and five things I learned from their work. All the photos in this post are on Flickr here.

Background: Why They Did What They Did

The Henry Art Gallery exhibition we worked with, Vortexhibition Polyphonica, was intended to explore three big ideas:
  1. Different voices “intervene” or add new points of view to the exhibition at periodic intervals.
  2. Surprising or unexpected, as well as unknown, works from the permanent collections are featured.
  3. The guiding principle is uncovering relationships between the works of art themselves rather than explicating information or theoretical concepts.
I suspect these big ideas were opaque to most visitors. The exhibition looked like any standard contemporary white box with artwork and labels, albeit featuring an eclectic mix of works and signed labels (to accentuate the role of different voices). My students decided to make these big ideas more explicit and engage visitors as participants while doing so.

To that end, they designed and executed three projects:
  1. Xavier, an opportunity for visitors to "talk" with a sculpture in the exhibition via magnetic quotation boards and alphabet fridge magnets.
  2. Stringing Connections, in which visitors could describe relationships between works in the exhibition and make them visible by tying pieces of yarn between them on a large map of the gallery.
  3. Dirty Laundry, which invited visitors to air their own personal secrets and memories connected to works of art and to the exhibition overall.
All of these were designed intentionally to support the exhibition goals around multi-vocality, surprise, and relationships among artworks. While the students didn't have a chance to do exit interviews before the participatory activities were added to the exhibition, in summative evaluation when the participatory activities were available, many visitors volunteered that the
activities helped them explore relationships between works (Stringing Connections), the surprises hidden within artworks (Dirty Laundry), and the idea of many voices discussing art (Xavier). These nontraditional audience engagement techniques helped make complex goals and visions explicit and understandable to visitors.

What I Learned Part 1: Facilitation is Powerful

When I taught this class the first time, I put a real
premium on the idea of designing participatory activities that were visitor-driven and required minimal or no facilitation. Two years later, while I still appreciate the very real operational limitations of most institutions with regard to facilitation, I now believe that it's often essential to success. This is especially true in more traditional or formal institutions, where a pervasive "don't touch, be quiet" sensibility colors the ways visitors behave. It also proved necessary from a practical perspective in a security-minded institution where craft materials in the galleries had to be carefully controlled.

In the case of the Henry--a sparsely attended contemporary art space--the smiling invitations from my students for people to participate played a huge role in people's engagement and enjoyment. When activities were not facilitated, people were often too timid to interact. (This is less true of Dirty Laundry, which required a blend of friendly invitation to participate and private spaces to contribute secrets.) As one participant said, "the museum feels friendly in a way it usually doesn't." People make the museum friendly, not activities. All of the activities were well-used, and I think the main attractor was smiling students who invited you to play.

It's also worth noting that the facilitation supported thoughtful, on-topic engagement. While visitors used Stringing Connections and Xavier to express a variety of ideas related to art and how artworks are connected, there were no inappropriate or off-topic submissions to these projects. These two projects were always facilitated. Facilitators gave visitors a person to ask if they had questions and probably reinforced a sense that you were in the presence of an authority (a friendly one) and this was not a time to screw off.

Dirty Laundry was more complicated. It was facilitated in some areas but not in others. For example, visitors were invited to add their own secrets to hampers in front of selected artworks and were instructed to write secrets or memories that those specific artworks evoked. Even with example content to guide participation, most visitors used these opportunities to write secrets on any topic, unrelated to the artwork. Written instructions were not enough to compel them to do otherwise.

Lesson 2: Reward with Shareable Take-Aways

Each of the project teams gave participants some kind of gift for taking part. Dirty Laundry had buttons. Stringing Connections made friendship bracelets with extra yarn, which quickly became a hot commodity. And the Xavier team took a photo of each visitor with his conversation and immediately uploaded it to Flickr, handing the visitor a card with a link to access the photo later. These buttons, bracelets, and cards advertised the activities to other visitors and enhanced the sense of friendliness and invitation that helped people feel comfortable participating.

Each project also invited visitors to make assets that then were immediately available for others to see and build on. People revisited the Stringing Connections map several times to see what had been added, and Xavier participants came back to watch the Flickr sideshow. This was perhaps most effective with Dirty Laundry, where some participants who contributed a secret on the street outside the museum later came inside to check out their secrets and the rest of the collection. This isn't participatory rocket science, but the power of being able to see how you have contributed to a growing collection or project in real time is powerful.

Lesson #3: You Really Can't Guess What People Will Contribute

While this lesson is especially true of the Dirty Laundry secrets (see lesson 4), I was equally impressed by the diversity of contributions in Xavier and Stringing Connections. On the Stringing Connections map, visitors were invited to label the relationship they saw between artworks with a short phrase or sentence. While some were simple and descriptive ("very geometric," "they both feature red"), other labels revealed surprising connections ("it's what your insides look like," "silent sound"). Likewise with Xavier, some people would take a silly tack to their conversation with the sculpture, whereas others were more abstract. These differences didn't seem to be correlated with age or appearance. And while of course we know not to judge books by their covers, it's always nice to have a nine-year-old boy or an elderly couple surprise you into remembering that.

Lesson #4: Yes, Total Strangers will Share Shocking Secrets in Museums

While this project held lots of surprises, for me the biggest one was how popular the Dirty Laundry activity was, and how many people were willing to write personal secrets on bright pieces of laundry-shaped construction paper. There were 168 secrets contributed during the weekend this activity ran (a weekend in which 250 people visited the museum).


The secrets ranged from funny to sexy to deeply serious. I am still flummoxed as to what would make someone admit to an affair or bad parenting in a sterile art gallery, or the devastating one that read, "I avoid the important, difficult conversations with those I love the most." I was generally surprised that neon construction paper and golf pencils felt like good materials for sharing such personal content. I was also surprised that so many people were willing to write a secret and hand it to a facilitator to be hung on a clothesline. While the group had planned for ways to invite anonymous participation, that didn't seem to be a concern for many contributors.

Why did this happen? I don't know. But one student commented, "A lot of people need therapy and can't afford it. This is kind of an opportunity for that." I think this makes some sense. In this short video, one participant even talks about her therapist.

The secrets had such a power and draw that they started to overshadow connections with the exhibition itself. It was clear that there were some people for which the secrets were a compelling exhibit in their own right. This could be a good thing in the right context, but it's worth being aware of when you do and don't want participatory activities to stand alone.

Lesson #5: Experimentation is Stressful

We teamed up with the Henry for this project because staff members there expressed a real desire to experiment with participatory engagement. As it turned out, the experiment pushed everyone's abilities and comfort levels. I am incredibly grateful to the Henry for being so flexible and supportive of our class. It was just darn hard to do a rapid, messy experiment in a formal institution.

This was partly my fault. I resisted requests from the Henry to let staff really collaborate with students so I could protect students' independence and ability to pursue their passions without feeling pressured or influenced by staff desires. We also had an incredibly tight timeline--one month from first meeting to live projects--which necessitated setting ground rules from the start so students wouldn't have to keep asking staff if their projects were ok. While the Henry was open to experimentation, they hadn't really done interactive activities in the galleries alongside artworks before, and this project brought up a lot of questions. We had one big issue with Xavier when staff raised the question of whether the students were modifying the artwork or activating engagement around it. Ultimately that question was resolved by repositioning the activity to be slightly less close to the sculpture, but getting to that solution involved some hasty meetings and negotiations.

In the end, students told me they vastly preferred working with a museum to developing a project in a non-institutional public space. I feel mixed about this choice. While I think the students did fabulous work that is very translatable to future careers in exhibition and program design, I personally struggled with the constraints of the traditional museum wrapper. I felt like we couldn't go as far as I wanted in terms of pushing the boundaries of audience participation, and I worried that the students might end up designing glorified cart activities. Now that the dust has cleared, I think about Paul Light's definition of nonprofit innovation as "an act that challenges the prevailing wisdom as it creates public value." In the context of the Henry Art Gallery and the UW Museology program, these students were superb innovators. Now it's up to me to figure out how to push the envelope a bit further next time.
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